Hiroshima | Critical Essay by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Hiroshima.
This section contains 3,269 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh

SOURCE: "The Stubborn Fact: The Exegetical Nonfiction Novel," in The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, University of Illinois Press, 1976, pp. 93-127.

In the following excerpt, Zavarzadeh analyzes Hiroshima as an exegetial nonfiction novel.

The exegetical nonfiction novel is a fictual narrative registering the public or private events which have taken place, usually in the absence of the author, in the past. In attempting to repossess the empirical constituents of the occurred events and to recover their original configurations and mythic resonance, the exegetical nonfiction novelist subjects all the available evidence to an intensive exegesis. This kind of nonfiction novel, in its concern with past occurrences, resembles fictive novels like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, some historical novels, and such factual narratives as Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham (whom George Steiner considers "Proust's only successor"). But a radically different use of facts distinguishes the exegetical nonfiction novel from fictive novels and from factual narratives.

The novelist, using a private interpretive scheme, reorders the seemingly random incidents of the past into what Clive Bell calls "a significant form." He dramatizes his vision of life in a new personal patterning of events within a narrative structure. The rhythm of his narrative follows his chiaroscuro of experience: the distribution of light and shade in the total picture of reality according to his metaphysics. The factual narratist is also preoccupied with the interpretation of the past and the discovery of its underlying shape. His procedures, however, are quite different from those of the novelist. Rather than beginning with a totalization of experience in the light of his private vision of life, he moves toward such a grand synthesis by examining all the documents. The tempo and rhythm of his narration are determined by the informing force behind the original movement of events which he has uncovered through his researches. The narrative attitude of the novelist is "epiphanic"; that of the factual narratist is "expositional."

In crisis situations, when "the complexities and the relative safety of a fully functioning society have been suspended and replaced by an environment at once unfamiliar and dangerous," the pressures of psychic and social actualities are so intense that both the private and the communal experiences refuse to be tamed into a coherent system of meaning. Such extreme situations demand a narrative method which goes beyond the search for an anthropomorphic meaning and accommodates the isness of the manifold events by capturing their charged textures. The nonfiction novel is the embodiment of such a method: it dispenses with conventional narrative expectations and, instead of neutralizing the contingency of events through an imposed aesthetic necessity, acknowledges the discontinuity of facts in a pervading freakish reality.

In his attempt to register the past events in their full existential inevitability and in their original shape, the nonfiction novelist employs a variety of research techniques. He investigates the public documents, such private records as letters, diaries, and journals, and interviews eyewitnesses and participants, if possible. In Hiroshima, an example of an exegetical nonfiction novel, John Hersey employs most of these methods. The main problem in dealing with the haunting facts of such events as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, or My Lai, as Alfred Alvarez observes, is "the enormity and the truth of the events." The six survivors of the first atomic explosion whose lives in a city in crisis are recorded in Hiroshima were six characters in search of an author. Their lives had almost instantaneously been transformed into a dark fable. To become visible to themselves and others on a new plane of reality, these six lives needed to be written into a book. Their author had to be a scribe, not an interpreter who would project values into this alien world and tame it by a humanistic obsession with meaning.

Hiroshima is a literalization of Thoreau's belief that "if men would steadily observe realities only," they would realize that "reality is fabulous." The tension and the ambiguity of the fictual experience endured by each of the six persons and their shared destiny is articulated through the tension of the book's narrative mode, which moves alternately to the world outside the book and to the inner fiction generated within it.

The book details the fate of about a quarter of a million people in Hiroshima on and after the day of the first atomic blast. It registers the metamorphosis of their private and communal lives through an examination of six survivors: a secretary, a doctor with a private practice, an impoverished war widow, a German Jesuit missionary, a Red Cross physician, and a Japanese Methodist minister.

The first chapter retrieves a precise moment: "exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time." Throughout the entire chapter, Hersey subjects this frozen moment to a narrational exegesis, showing what each person was doing at this moment and the hours preceding it. The six survivors are introduced in a quasi prologue, partly narrational, partly explanatory, which serves as an annotated dramatis personae. Each person is then individually portrayed on this morning as he or she prepares for the daily routine. The juxtaposition of the portraits of these six persons, and those of less-exposed people, is the basic organizing device used throughout the book. The narrative interest created by contiguous portraits generates the energy of Hiroshima. Hersey substitutes portrait for incident or situation; the entire book uses the technique of portraiture as narration. Portrait, in other words, gives the actemes a forward thrust.

Among the six opening portraits, that of Dr. Sasaki especially adds to the narrational momentum by relating the transference from one level of reality to another and by blurring the line between the private dream and public nightmare. Dr. Sasaki has had a restless night. But the nightmare which disturbed his sleep does not vanish as the morning sun comes up. It lingers. The doctor, a young graduate of Eastern Medical University in Tsingtao, China, is appalled by the inadequacy of medical facilities in the country town where his mother lives. Without a permit, he has begun visiting a few sick townspeople in the evenings, after his eight hours at the Red Cross Hospital and four hours of commuting. Recently, he has learned through a fellow doctor that the penalty for practicing without a permit is severe. In his nightmare, he was at the bedside of a country patient when the police and the fellow doctor burst into the room, dragged him outside, and beat him cruelly. On the morning train, while still preoccupied with the dream, he decides to abandon the practice. He arrives at the hospital at seven-forty, and reports to the head surgeon. In a few moments, on the first floor of the hospital, he draws blood from the arm of a man to perform a Wassermann test. With the blood specimen in his left hand and walking in a kind of distraction, perhaps because of the nightmare, he moves toward the laboratory. He is one step beyond an open window when the light of the bomb reflects "like a gigantic photographic flash" in the corridor. Ducking down on one knee, he says to himself, "Sasaki, gambare!" (Be Brave!). The building trembles, his glasses fall off, the bottle of blood crashes against one wall, his Japanese slippers are ripped from his feet. At that moment, Dr. Sasaki forgets his private dream: it has merged with a public Kafkaesque nightmare in the broad daylight.

In the frozen moment of the blast, the habitual boundaries between such concepts as real-unreal, sooner-later, here-there, and most important, the various facets of "I," blur; the person is transferred to a different sphere of actuality. The dislodging of consciousness is mapped in Hiroshima not by imposing a pattern of meaning or commenting on the raw experience, but through registering the actual. The reorientation of the people to the actualities of this layer of existence is also recorded without comments about either the conceiving consciousness of the survivors or the atmosphere in which they try to regain their bearings. Any comment or search for pattern is based on the conception of values which would be alien, and therefore distorting, to this emerging actuality. The fullness is captured by exegetically retrieving the experiential données. In Dr. Sasaki's portrait, for example, the continuation of the personal dream into the public nightmare is not treated in any fabular manner. The dream and the nightmare are juxtaposed, and the tension between the two is enacted not by drawing attention to it, but by a noninterpretive registering of the two. When the Reverend Tanimoto, the life-long preacher of an ethics of caring for other human beings, in a moment of confusion and dislodgment leaves a friend under the ruins and dashes into the street to save himself, no attempt is made to point out the irony. No ethical rule is applicable to this moment of patareal actuality, and interpretation of the act as "ironical" would be rather naïve. Registration and juxtaposition map the transference of the person to a new area of experience where fact and fiction converge.

The portraits in the first chapter are introduced into the narrative by the technique of "synchronic narration." In synchronic narration, the flow of time is stopped, and the contents of the moment are registered simultaneously. The only link among the contained elements is the moment itself. The technique of synchronic narration is frequently used in nonfiction novels to emphasize the solidity of measurable external time. Contrary to the practice of such Modernist writers as Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, and others, who counterpoint clock time with interior time to show the ultimate unreality of surface time, the nonfiction novelists are suspicious of any juggling with testable clock time. To re-order time is to re-order the experience and thus to interpret it according to a private vision. Taking the chronological axis as the narrational point of reference, Hersey records the blast experiences of the six main persons in the first chapter, and then transcribes their new life in the remaining three chapters. As time passes, the people reorient themselves to the new actualities and develop an increasing awareness of the sufferings of one another. Hiroshima follows this movement from personal introspection to communal cooperation. The first part of the book (chapter one and the main part of chapter two) deals with the private agonies of the six persons portrayed, while the second part puts the personal anguish in the context of the public disaster. Portraits in the first part are therefore mostly of individuals examined in a given series of actemes. In the following part, the individual portraits are combined with group or composite portraits which delineate one or more of the six persons with less-exposed figures. Chapter three, for instance, opens with such a group portrait, depicting Mrs. Nakamura, Father Kleinsorge, and the Reverend Tanimoto, plus a number of friends in Asano Park. In this part, panoramic views of the city and its inhabitants are also offered, and discursive passages are interposed between the portraits. Discussions, arguments, figures, statistics, official announcements, and bulletins comprise the body of these discursive sections. They form the core of the book's documentation and help to create the self-verifying component or built-in check system, providing evidence that the events in the book are indeed authentic, not figments of the author's imagination.

Individual portraits, general scenes, and discursive passages are all put together by narrative collage, which enacts the randomness, chaos, and horror which have disrupted the life of the city and its inhabitants. (The function of collage as used by Hersey and such transfictionists as Barthelme and Federman differs radically from that of Dos Passos, Joyce, and Eliot. For the latter, collage is an interpretive and totalizing device: "fragments" which are "shored against ruins" of the "panorama of futility and anarchy" of the times. In the works of the nonfiction novelists and transfictionists, on the other hand, collage is a function of "imitative form" [the technique which Yvor Winters and other Modernist critics rejected as a "fallacy"], a means, in other words, for following the contours of the surrounding discontinuous world.) After the blast, the city is swept by a great fire and the streets are filled with bloodied, terrified, half-naked people, running aimlessly in their torn undergarments. On their bodies, "the burns had made patterns—of the undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of the flowers they had on their kimonos." The patterns bear an uncanny resemblance to the "designs" needled on the bare skins of the condemned men by the "harrow" of that "remarkable piece of apparatus" in Kafka's In the Penal Colony. What is happening in the broad daylight in Hiroshima preempts the imagined and fictional. Some survivors, stunned and dazed, rush toward the fire; some are unable to move: "a great number sat and lay on the pavement, vomited, waited for death, and died." The usual responses and even reflexes seem to have been suspended. The energetic Mr. Yoshida, former head of the Nobori-cho Neighborhood Association and director of the air-raid defenses, had boasted that fire might eat away all Hiroshima but would never come to Nobori-cho. When the Bomb blows down his house, a joist pins him by the legs, in full view of people hurrying along the street. His cries for help bring no response from the passers-by; he is merely part of the general blur of misery. He sees the houses around him surge into flames; heat sears his face. Then flames reach his side of the street and lick at his house. In a paroxysm of terrified strength, he frees himself and runs down the alleys of Nobori-cho, hemmed in by the fire he said would never come. He begins at once to behave like an old man; in two months his hair will be white.

The city is in the grip of an actual collective nightmare whose intensity and depth of horror would have been all but distorted by any conventional novelistic form with its preoccupation with a dramatic ordering of experience. The events themselves are charged to the highest possible degree. They require a registrational narrative which, through exegesis of details, is capable of mapping the vibrant surface which contains the experience. The actuality itself, at this intersection of fact and fiction, is darkly reflective of the nature of the relationship between man and technology. Any aesthetic reordering or symbolic interpretation of the observed is patently redundant in bringing out the moral dimension of what, for example, Father Kleinsorge witnesses in Asano Park. While bringing water for the maimed and badly wounded, he hears a voice call to him:

"Have you anything to drink?" He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks…. Their mouths were mere swollen, puscovered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot. So Father Kleinsorge got a large piece of grass and drew out the stem so as to make a straw, and gave them all water to drink that way. [p. 68]

To criticize Hiroshima for substituting "artful detail" for "moral intelligence" is to read the book as if it were a conventional fictive novel dealing with a tamed reality. The experiential event here is self-defining and need only be registered. To attempt to impose any pattern on the event is to violate its fullness and complexity. One is reminded again of Thoreau's statement in his Journal (November 9, 1851): "I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic."

The harrowing story of the soldiers with melted eyes is recorded in chapter three, which covers the period from the evening of August 6 to August 15. The title of the chapter, "Details Are Being Investigated," taken from a Japanese radio broadcast on August 7, indicates its general tenor. Extensive discursive passages accompany individual and group portraits. In Modernist aesthetics, the mingling of narrative with discursive discourse is regarded as impure and inartistic. Such mixing shows that the artist has been unable to control his materials and turn "life" into "art." Distinctions of this kind, however, are irrelevant to the reading of supramodern literature, which is essentially the writing of mixed levels of experience through mixed levels of discourse. The status of discursive discourse in supramodern writing is very similar to that of real objects in a contemporary painting; it opens up the closed set of the work of art and asserts the original source of experience.

Among the references to the verifiable facts, which comprise the core of documentation and help to create the out-referentiality of Hiroshima, are the announcements made by President Truman (p. 65) and Emperor Hirohito (p. 84), the investigations and findings of the Japanese scientists (pp. 95-97), and the inclusion of such identifiable persons as Lieutenant John D. Montgomery (p. 105) and Professor Y. Hiraiwa of Hiroshima University of Literature and Science (p. 115). The six major persons are, of course, identifiable figures of life. In his biographical note on John Hersey in Saturday Review of Literature for March 4, 1950, Norman Cousins describes his own visits to Dr. Fujii and Mrs. Nakamura. The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto, despite his loss of energy, asked to translate Hiroshima into Japanese.

In the final chapter, unlike the first two and the nucleus of the third, summary narration is used more freely. The time span extends from August 15 to the author's interview with the six persons in the spring of 1946. In this chapter, the depth of the bomb's violent disturbance of the balance in nature is captured by a graphic presentation of the sickness and suffering of the six survivors. Father Kleinsorge suddenly faints during a Mass; Mrs. Nakamura and her daughter grow bald, and are forced to stay indoors; Mr. Tanimoto is afflicted with a general weariness and feverishness.

Discussing the illness of these four persons, the narrator's voice becomes quite audible: "These four did not realize it, but they were coming down with the strange, capricious disease which came later to be known as radiation sickness" (p. 90). This is one of the few occasions when the narrator "intrudes" into the narrative. The general narrative point of view of the book is a controlled omniscience, the most frequently adopted point of view in the exegetical nonfiction novels. I shall discuss it more fully in my analysis of Capote's In Cold Blood. The narrator, at all times, has a very subdued and quiet tone—the tone of the receptive and accommodating registrar—in accord with the approach of the book to the inherently ambiguous actualities.

The intermingling of the facts and the dark fiction which oozes from them in Hiroshima establishes the double modes of the narrative. It is possible, of course, to read any nonfiction novel as if it were a mono-referential work. In the case of Hiroshima, the book can be read as a factual report or a fictive novel (the sudden destruction of an alien city with a strange weapon). However, such readings fail to account for a narrative mode which counterpoints the factual and the outflowing fiction to map the responses of the overwhelmed consciousness at the borderline area of experience, an area where the various facets of perception converge and a fictual zone emerges.

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This section contains 3,269 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh